To note: this is a review of the omnibus edition of SiP. Reading the series over a decade, or even all at once, in issue form, would produce a marginally different review to this one. This review comes from reading two 1000+ page tomes. Also, while I will not spoil the events of the ending, I will describe the comic-language and story-telling techniques of the ending.
On the shelf, a woman’s blackened eye stares at me through a tear in darkness. The eye, reddened and swollen, does not cry, not even quivering to predict tears. Firm eyes, strong spirit, looking out beneath the words, ‘Strangers in Paradise: Omnibus,’ and above the signature, ‘Terry Moore’. Not merely box art, but an image from within the story imposed without, overflowing into reality, as if to say, ‘This is no slice-of-life contained between two covers for easy intake. This is life.’
‘Epic-length relationship drama’ will likely turn off a large portion (of a certain half) of SiP’s potential readers. A two thousand page exploration of the lives of two women, Francine and Katchoo, whose relationships filial, romantic and platonic bloom, whither and still-birth before us. A good deal of men, I shall generalise, might condemn it, unread, as ‘chick-lit’ (here used pejoratively). I won’t say it is more than that, out of respect to chick-lit*, but I will say it is more than they think of that.
Written over fourteen years, from 1993 to 2007, totalling 106 issues Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise is comprised of three ‘volumes’, and since its initial publication has been acclaimed as one of comics’ masterworks. The first volume, only three issues long, feels like Moore winding his characters up to see how they run, testing the dramatic potential of their relationships to decide whether a grander undertaking could be set upon.
While the tentative reader should not limit their trial run to this initial outing, it does nonetheless function as a microcosm of the entire series. Moore sets up Katchoo and Francine, their relationship to each other and their relationships to the wider world. Katchoo, the reader infers, seems a bohemian, but unrooted, twenty-something with a love-hate (mostly and professedly hate) relationship with men, and an aching love, both romantic and friendly, for Francine, her roommate. Contrasting Katchoo, Francine suffers from insecurity, resulting in a fear that anyone she opens her heart to ‘will leave [her] like all the others’ once they satisfy their cravings. A belief undeterred by boyfriend, and arse, Freddie Femur.
Although these early issues take place in a slightly cartoonier reality than the series proper, with casual recourse to (comedic) violence, Moore grounds events in reality, making sure consequences extend from actions. When Katchoo finds out Francine caught her boyfriend cheating on her (another mark against a character Moore draws as a caricature of male entitlement) she exacts on him a revenge most swift and most foul. Breaking into his apartment with a gun and hired muscle, she ties him up and tells him she’ll castrate him (she doesn’t). Cue the next morning and the reader sees Freddie strung up in a shop window, naked spare a clown wig, with a magnifying glass focussed on his carefully obscured genitals. Most writers would end that plot there. Poetic justice has been carried out, one of our protagonists has been avenged. Not Moore, though. Law exists in his world, and no matter how odious the victim may be, it is still illegal to break into someone’s house and string them up naked in public. The next morning the police come knocking on Katchoo’s door, and while the image of a dozen gun barrels centred on gape-mouthed Katchoo plays far too Looney Tunes to appear any later in the series, Moore makes his point to the reader: Events do not occur in vacuums. A terrible decision made one issue will not be forgotten by the next. In a way this one event foreshadows the interconnected web of the entire series. Events tens of issues ago will return, sometimes like a shambling drunk you remember you wronged, and sometimes like a congratulatory letter in the mail from that contest you forgot entering. Bit characters introduced as a few lines of idiosyncratic but disposable dialogue reappear as minor, or even crucial, characters. What results is a living world extending beyond the protagonist’s direct actions and immediate circumstances.
While I’m loathe to whittle a work down to a sentiment, Moore does lay down a thematic through-line on the series’ very first page through its namesake quote**, ‘[W]ithout love, we’re never more than strangers in paradise.’ Whether wealthy or poor, strong or weak, regardless of whether they’ve achieved American Dream, or just their parents’ dream, no character in the series finds true happiness until they’ve found others to unreservedly give themselves to.
The unreserved part is crucial. Halfway through the series Moore highlights the on-again-off-again relationship between Katchoo and Francine, where as soon as they seem to take the definitive plunge one or both of them retreat because of something rash, or merely non-conducive, one or the other of them does. One character says, in that way that makes it clear the writer is arguing the opposite point, ‘I don’t believe people like this really exist! ... Keep it simple.’ And that’s one of the beauties of this series. The work isn’t unrealistic, it just doesn’t conform to the simple narrative readers are trained to expect. By playing out what could have a short story (and in some ways was a short story in the first three issues) over thousands of pages and years of in-universe time Moore explores his central theme with the exhaustiveness necessary to communicate it. Were the series lacking that exhaustiveness then the central theme embodied in the quote, ‘[W]ithout love, we’re never more than strangers in paradise,’ would reek of platitude, a message to fly out of mind when you throw out the Hallmark card. But then, platitudes are the hardest things to prove, being so often repeated by half-articulate tongues that people become vaccinated against the sentiment.
There is a Zen parable where a general comes to monk and asks, ‘What is the secret to contentment?’
The monk replies, ‘Eat only when you are hungry. Sleep only when you are tired.’
‘But that’s obvious,’ says the general. ‘Why do they call you wise if all you do is repeat what everyone knows?’
‘If everyone knows,’ replies the monk, ‘why do so few do it?’
Moore explores a sentiment so ingrained in humanity that intellectually it goes uninspected and, as such, more or less rejected. Far from being unrealistic the series is, emotionally, one of the most true to life works out there.
I clarified with ‘emotionally’ there because while the series is generally true to life, it takes many deviations from the everyday plot-wise. Those with passing knowledge of the plot’s structure may wonder why I’m only now bringing up the ‘thriller’ storyline. The reason, frankly, is that it’s not that interesting. For those not in the know, after the first three issues Moore seeds and flowers a thriller story-line, containing assassins, mob conspiracies, (non-comedic) action and other elements that the words ‘relationship drama’ would not key the reader into. I’m sure parts of the thriller are realistic, in the way that spies and mafia dons are, but they feel like intrusions when presented in a slice-of-life story. And while the thriller elements are essential to the plot and grow increasingly well integrated into the story-line, such that the contrast between a gunfight and a family meeting does not break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, many readers will probably wish them gone altogether. Maybe they give the series a spice of idiosyncrasy? Maybe every return from thriller mode refreshes the slice-of-life sections, because a sustained slice-of-life narrative would have grown stale? To be clear, the thriller story isn’t bad. Don’t let it turn you off, it’s perfectly serviceable. Only occasionally does it fall off its tightrope into action movie theatrics. The thriller plot, like the halfway-charismatic host of a party, though seemingly necessary to the whole affair, cannot help but make a sink in your stomach whenever they come up from behind to start a conversation. But who knows, maybe this through-plot broadens the potential audience.
Apart from these narrative branches the series feels utterly believable, with characters leading organically branching lives. A la The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the series has three endings to demonstrate life’s lack of certainty. Two are, or at least feel, genuine, and one is merely a character’s prediction. Moore commits, in the genuine endings, only to hazy denouements, acknowledging that the remaining course of a life could not be set out in a few finishing pages. Even the most conclusive ending closes with what seems a wink from the characters and Moore. A door closes on you, the reader, implying that while the story ends here, their lives go on. What ends is merely your window into them.
On point of artwork, Moore’s panels flow with clarity, and his characters are expressive. With any serial work, especially a first-timer’s fourteen year one, you expect gap in quality between the first page and the last. For most illustrators this would be an increase in quality as they get their eye in. But of Moore’s initial and final styles neither can be called better or worse, rather, he achieves a style better suited to the story he’s telling. As I mentioned earlier, the first three issues feel cartoonier than the rest. A cartoonist must always have an eye for body language. Lacking the tones of voice film lends and the internal analysis of thought prose lends, he must communicate the nuance of dialogue through how he positions a body. Moore very quickly achieves a style with subtle body language, but the beginning marks itself with hyperbolic poses.
On the negative side of his art: while his faces have much expressiveness, they don’t have much variety. Many illustrators have a limited repertoire of distinct faces, but in a series with so many characters it gets particularly bad. At times I would wonder, ‘Is she that woman with the slight double chin?’ or, ‘Is she that blonde woman?’*** A minor issue, one that only detracted from my reading experience a few times, but a legitimate gripe nonetheless.
Strangers in Paradise is one of those series where even if you don’t like it, you can’t help but be impressed. Moore has created a large and varied cast of authentic characters. From a narrow patch he seeds a plot whose branches spread wide and overlap. The worst I can say of this series is it falters, though never falls, whenever it strays from its slice-of-life path. It’s a good read, it’s a deep read, it should be on a list of modern classics. It’s the kind of book that guilts you into thinking, ‘If I’ve not read this, it’s my own fault.’
*Just like I won’t say The Handmaid’s Tale is ‘more than sci-fi’.
**I say namesake quote, but, as far as I can find, the quotation is entirely Moore’s own creation. Yet another technique he employs over the course of the series, the fabrication of thematically relevant artwork (e.g. song lyrics which, in the time before Google, could easily fool some readers into believing they exist as actual songs).
***Given the series is black and white, all characters, effectively, are either black-haired or blond.